Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo warned Tuesday he is “very serious” about locating a new casino in Niagara Falls, while also acknowledging he is ramping up pressure on the Seneca Nation of Indians to settle its dispute with the state.
Cuomo said he will soon “bid out your area” for a state-owned casino as part of enabling legislation for a constitutional amendment allowing non-Indian casinos in upstate New York. Cuomo was speaking to editors and reporters of The Buffalo News following a budget-signing ceremony on the South Campus of the University at Buffalo.
The legislation – as part of the constitutional amendment process – would allow for another casino in the region while negating the Senecas’ “exclusivity franchise” in Western New York, Cuomo sources later said.
Unless the Senecas reach agreement with the state in arbitration, the governor made it clear he will carry out his promise soon.
“That could come within two months,” he said. “That has put the pressure on the situation.”
In his most specific comments to date on the possibility of ending the Senecas’ exclusive gambling franchise, Cuomo said he will proceed with his plan to bid out gambling rights with or without a decision by an arbitration panel headed by Judith S. Kaye, former chief judge of New York State.
“If we work it out, fine,” he said. “But in the meantime, I will proceed with the bidding process.”
Cuomo said the Senecas believe they will win the arbitration now before the panel. Sources tell The News the arbitration includes new proposals and counterproposals involving stronger restrictions on state casinos at racetracks, extending terms of the agreement, and prohibiting new games of chance in return for the state receiving its desired proceeds.
So far, the state has not received almost $600 million in gambling revenues from Seneca casinos in Niagara Falls, Salamanca and Buffalo as a result of the dispute.
The tribe contends that Albany broke its contract when it introduced slot machines at “racinos” in Canandaigua, Batavia and Hamburg.
Even if the Senecas are correct in the dispute, the governor said they are not justified in withholding money owed the state and the three municipalities. He also hinted that the pace of talks between the two sides may be quickening as a result of his more-than-veiled suggestion.
“So, this casino move by the state has pressured the situation, which frankly is a good thing,” he said.
Cuomo said the state has not yet determined its course should it lose the arbitration but emphasized he is not waiting for Kaye’s panel to decide the matter.
“I want to resolve the situation quickly, before the casino decision is made,” he said, “which is in everyone’s best interest.”
A spokeswoman for the Senecas did not return a call requesting comment.
Cuomo also weighed in on other matters, including:
Gun control: The governor offered an impassioned defense of his controversial new legislation, insisting that in years to come the law will be viewed as a life saver. But he also acknowledged the political hit he has sustained from the vocal 30 percent of New Yorkers identified in polls as opponents of his NY SAFE Act.
“I get the political strength; I get it very well,” he said. “I get the harshness, I get the ferocity.”
But he denied the bill was passed quickly or for political gain, while labeling as “technical” recent modifications that nullified the new requirement for a seven-bullet magazine on rifles.
“Frankly, it didn’t have anything to do with the public comments,” he said, but more to the unwillingness of arms manufacturers to make seven-bullet clips.
“It is one of the single greatest accomplishments of this State Legislature and of my administration,” he said. “I believe as time goes on and as we look back that it will save lives.
“Did I go down in the polls? Yes,” he added. “How many points can you down in the polls that justifies saving a life?”
Upstate economy: The loss of manufacturing throughout the upstate region has presented special challenges for more than 50 years, Cuomo said. But he said his administration has responded with programs like regional economic development councils to combat the problems of specific areas and that the area will rebound in concert with the national economy.
“Given where we are and what we’re dealing with, we’ve made progress,” he said.
Buffalo economy: Cuomo waxed about a “vibe” that he feels about economic progress in Buffalo and characterized that outlook as “better.”
He pointed to state involvement in retaining the Buffalo Bills by helping to finance improvements to Ralph Wilson Stadium as a confidence builder that prevented a major hit to the area’s image had they left.
He also touted his “Billion for Buffalo” program that commits $1 billion to economic development projects in the region identified by local leaders.
As he has in the past, he noted the criticism he endures from other regions for singling out Western New York but defends the move as necessary.
“I can’t be in any deeper than I am,” he said. “A billion dollars is all the money in the world to me – more than all the discretionary money in the whole budget this year.”
Minimum wage hike: Increasing the minimum wage from $7.25 to $9 over several years will affect approximately 67,100 workers, Cuomo said, while defending the unusual financing, in which the state will provide tax credits to some businesses in order to implement the program for 16-to-19-year-olds.
Critics have lambasted the new agreement as an unfair subsidy because the tax credits will partially finance the new wage for businesses that employ 16- to 19-year-olds who are students. When the wage is raised to $9 in January 2016, the state will pay businesses $1.35 per hour per employee for every eligible worker.
The governor said the wage hike was necessary because those depending on it cannot live on $14,000 a year and that the tax credit mechanism was the only way to pass it through both the Assembly and Senate.
He also defended the funding mechanism as similar to tax credits offered to veterans, or businesses to create jobs.
“And it’s a relatively small population and a relatively small amount of money,” he said.
The 2013-14 budget: The governor displayed a hockey puck before about 250 invited guests at Harriman Hall at UB to signify the “hat trick” of three on-time budgets in a row.
“Middle-class families earning $30,000 to $300,000 will pay the lowest tax rate in 60 years,” Cuomo said in detailing the budget’s economic development initiatives, middle-class tax cuts, and education investments and reforms for Western New York. “Not since Jackie Robinson played for the Brooklyn Dodgers have taxes been this low for the middle class.”
The budget’s middle-class tax credit will allow more than 105,000 families in Western New York to save a total of $110 million.
Reporter Jane Kwiatkowski contributed to this report. email: firstname.lastname@example.org